How the Mullahs Won

Salman Rushdie’s artistic decline

Defining the fatwa as the hinge moment of Rushdie's life offers the reader the chance to examine his work through the same prism. (Horst Friedrichs/Anzenberger/Redux)

On Valentine’s Day 1989, the writer was informed that the decrepit head of Iran’s “revolutionary” regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, had issued a fatwa calling for his death. The stated cause of the edict was the novel he had just written, The Satanic Verses, which supposedly insulted the followers of Muhammad by slandering the Prophet’s wives. For the next decade, he lived precariously: he was forced into hiding; his Japanese translator was murdered; his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher suffered violent attacks. On one occasion, when he feared for his young son’s safety, he seems to have come close to breaking down.

This brief sketch of the most-harrowing years of Rushdie’s life was, I promise, written by me. But the paragraph could be Rushdie’s. Joseph Anton, his new memoir, is composed almost entirely in the third person. (The title was Rushdie’s pseudonym while in hiding; he combined the first names of Conrad and Chekhov.)

If it would ordinarily be obtuse to liken Rushdie’s ordeal—which was, after all, the result of religious mania—to an out-of-body experience, the comparison nevertheless remains a useful way of grasping what he endured. As the author said in a recent interview with a piously awed Jon Stewart, he wrote Joseph Anton as if he were recounting someone else’s life.

And yet Rushdie’s decision to use the third person is only a slight variation on the choices that have guided his entire career. With his literary allusions, his puns, and his often-ingenious wordplay, Rushdie has exhibited, in alternately inspired and tiresome fashion, a near-Joycean desire to manifest the expansiveness and allusionary possibilities of language. Although this book, with the exception of some amusing “letters” to various adversaries, is stylistically rather straightforward, the form does help situate it with Rushdie’s other writings. But Joseph Anton does not merely epitomize the strengths and weaknesses of its author; by defining the fatwa as the hinge moment of his life, Rushdie offers readers the opportunity to examine his work through the same prism.

Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any. Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization. Before the fatwa, Rushdie lived a relatively modest life in London. Now, as Joseph Anton drearily attests, Rushdie has become a New York socialite obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer.

In this time of protests at American embassies and consulates around the Muslim world, it is helpful to be reminded of the things one dimly remembers—namely, the utter gutlessness and disgrace that characterized so many of the initial responses to the fatwa. Rushdie recounts the reaction of Margaret Thatcher’s British government and much of Fleet Street, with high-ranking officials and columnists complaining about the cost to taxpayers of Rushdie’s security, as well as the reaction of religious leaders (and not only Muslim ones) who seemed more sympathetic to book-burning mobs than to the oh-so-quaint idea of free expression. Many brave independent bookstores, as well as a number of writers, did rally to Rushdie’s cause. But those who didn’t—from Hugh Trevor-Roper (“I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them”) to John le Carré—come in for well-earned drubbings.

Rushdie deftly deploys the third person to register both the pathos and the absurdity of his circumstances:

The foreign secretary was on television telling lies about him. The British people, Sir Geoffrey Howe said, had no love for this book. It was extremely rude about Britain. It compared Britain, he said, to Hitler’s Germany. The author of the unloved book found himself shouting at the television. “Where? On what page? Show me where I did that.” The television did not reply.

A page earlier, describing the book’s publication in various countries during the author’s non-sojourn in rural England, Rushdie remarks, “While all this and much more was happening the author of The Satanic Verses was crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer.” The more suspenseful sections of the book, particularly the false alarm involving his son, are rendered in detached, wonderfully lucid prose.

However, the impersonal nature of the writing can sometimes shortchange the reader. Of his childhood: “He was never beaten. He was a ‘nice, quiet boy.’ He learned the rules and observed them scrupulously.” And occasionally, the language is simply clunky: “He was supposed to be dead, but he obviously hadn’t understood that.” (Rushdie, generally good with creating names, got lucky in some of the real figures who populate Joseph Anton: his mother was born Zohra Butt, whose name seems coined by Tom Wolfe after a trip to the subcontinent; a romantic rival is Aylmer Gribble.)

It is helpful to be reminded of the utter gutlessness and disgrace that characterized so many of the initial responses to the fatwa.

But Rushdie’s exemplary handling of the affair is what deservedly comes through in the narrative. Yes, there was the dispiriting moment when he released a dull, politically correct statement about respecting the “sensibilities” of others. And yes, his decision to “affirm” his nonexistent Islamic faith (his family is Muslim) was one that he seemed to know, even at the time, would make him look silly and do nothing to lessen the threat. Yet who can fault Rushdie’s desire to try absolutely everything to attain security? In the first decade of the fatwa, he stood strongly and proudly for free expression, and composed a novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), that depicted religious fanatics—this time Muslim-hating Hindus intent on ruining Bombay, the city of his birth, which they stupidly renamed Mumbai. Rushdie had long been an opponent of religious chauvinism and fanaticism, in whatever guise they appeared, and the fatwa did not discourage this impulse.

If the fatwa made Rushdie an international mega-celebrity, then perhaps celebrity is an unsurprising secondary motif of this book, just as it was an annoying undercurrent in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Fury (2001), and Shalimar the Clown (2005). Long passages are given over to merely naming the celebrities Rushdie has met, especially since his big move to America in 2000. The boldfaced names are often just listed, as in a gossip column: one day he is in France hobnobbing with Bernard Kouchner and Nicolas Sarkozy; then back to London for Jeanne Moreau’s 70th birthday; then to New York for a party with Harrison Ford, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Seinfeld. Several occasions, like a meeting with Graham Greene, are indeed charming and memoir-worthy, but most of the anecdotes have no payoff:

The film director Michael Mann invited him to dinner and they discussed a project for a movie about the Mexican border. The movie star Will Smith told him about being taught by Muhammad Ali to do the “Ali Shuffle.” The producer Brian Grazer invited him to his office to ask if he wanted to write a movie about his life.

Joseph Anton quickly becomes a metaphor. Just as Rushdie’s work has ricocheted between the profound and the ridiculous, so this book shifts between expert accounts of the threat to Rushdie’s life and stand-alone little sections like the following: “They had dinner at Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter’s house and Harold held [Rushdie’s son] Milan on his lap for a long time.” That’s it. There’s nothing more.

In a review of Shalimar, John Updike noted that while Rushdie had always shown an interest in celebrity, the fatwa and his subsequent superstardom had given his work a “distracting glitter.” (The book, which is largely about Kashmir, has a central character named after a celebrity for no discernible reason.) When the narrator discussed “fame and theatricality,” the reader was now likely to notice the author peering out from behind the curtain.

The shortcomings concern more than just celebrity. Rushdie’s early books combined his unique magical realism with searing history. He made no apology for the outrageousness or ridiculousness of his dialogue and characters, and because they complemented his larger vision, the reader could enjoy them on their own terms, realism be damned. Rushdie did not become a stylistically different writer under the fatwa, but in his later work, the larger subjects of religion and intercommunal warfare become secondary to his ostentatious prose, which often exists merely for its own sake. (In Shalimar, Paris is described thusly: “That innocent-uninnocent city was a prostitute, was a gigolo, was sophisticated infidelity in the guilty-unguilty afternoons.”)

This might be less problematic if, as Joseph Anton reveals, Rushdie did not manifest a newly positive attitude toward realism, which he seems to pride himself on while simultaneously showing an unwillingness to sacrifice the decidedly unrealistic aspects of his fiction. He recounts the “advice he never forgot,” given to him by the medievalist Arthur Hibbert during the former’s time at Cambridge.

“You must never write history,” Hibbert said, “until you can hear the people speak.” He thought about that for years, and in the end it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t—you shouldn’t—tell their story. The way people spoke, in short, clipped phrases, or long, flowing rambles, revealed so much about them: their place of origin, their social class, their temperament, whether calm or angry, warmhearted or cold-blooded, foulmouthed or clean-spoken, polite or rude; and beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.

If spoken, this paragraph would certainly reveal Rushdie himself as someone simpleminded and Manichaean: How else to explain the belief that we can decipher whether someone is “warmhearted or cold-blooded,” let alone “good or bad,” by the way they speak? But the truly odd thing to note is that people almost never speak the way people speak in Salman Rushdie’s books. Sometimes this can be a joy; other times, not. In Fury, surely Rushdie’s worst novel, he presents us with an octogenarian German Jewish plumber named Joseph Schlink:

My name amuses you? So laugh. The chentleman, Mr. Simon, calls me Kitchen Schlink, to his Mrs. Ada I’m also Bathroom Schlink, let zem call me Schlink the Bismarck, it von’t bother me, it’s a free country, but in my business I haff no use for humor. In Latin, humor is a dampness from the eye. This is to quote Heinrich Böll, Nobel Prize nineteen hundred seventy-two. In his line of vork he alleges it’s helpful, but in my job it leads to mistakes. No damp eyes on me, eh?, and no chokes in my tool bag. Chust I like to do the vork prompt, receive payment also prompt, you follow me here. Like the shvartzer says in the movie, show me the money. After a war spent plugging leaks on a Nazi U-boat, you think I can’t fix up your little doofus here?

Rushdie’s work is filled with such rants or riffs, usually funnier than this dud. But if a Rushdie book does not have a Rushdie-like narrator (such as the one used to great effect in Shame), it is still filled with people who quite explicitly feel like creations of the author. Consequently, these characters get saddled with dialogue that is inorganic to who they are. In reviewing Shalimar, Updike wrote that Rushdie

propels his ill-named Ambassador, the usually cool and laconic Maximilian Ophuls, into uttering “a series of high-flown locutions” in a television interview, culminating in the cri de coeur “In Kashmir it is paradise itself that is falling; heaven on earth is being transformed into a living hell.”

The same issue occurs in The Enchantress of Florence (2008), such as when Machiavelli (that Machiavelli) speaks of his exclusive attraction to women and adds to a young male friend, “So you don’t have to worry about me jumping you in the woods.” He soon adds, to a prospective clerk, “Clerks never get fucked … but you’ll be the envy of us all.”

As Joseph Anton progresses, Rushdie displays more confusion about language. Here he is on the thought process behind Midnight’s Children:

This was no longer the age of Jane Austen, who could write her entire oeuvre during the Napoleonic Wars without mentioning them, and for whom the major role of the British Army was to wear dress uniforms and look cute at parties. Nor would he write his book in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language.
If the fatwa made Rushdie an international mega-celebrity, then perhaps celebrity is an unsurprising secondary motif of this book.

It’s true that Rushdie’s language is, to extend his terminology, often overheated. But his assumption that different realities require different styles of language is a categorical error of a very large order. One only has to think of the writers—British (Forster, Paul Scott, J. G. Farrell) and Indian (R. K. Narayan, Anita Desai)—who have managed to portray India in wonderfully cool prose. (Rohinton Mistry’s wonderful prose is not exactly cool, but even with its color and emotion, one never loses sight of the narrative.) Moreover, Rushdie’s description of India is clichéd and simplistic; just try to imagine a white writer claiming that India is too “overcrowded and vulgar” for traditional language.

Just as Rushdie now finds his word games as important as his characters, so a related form of self-centeredness shows up elsewhere in Joseph Anton. It may seem silly to focus on Rushdie’s discussions of his former wives, but they take up considerable amounts of space, and here his writing is cold, but not Forsterian. His novelist second wife is either subtly undermined or cruelly disparaged:

He was sometimes alarmed by the speed at which she transformed experience into fiction. There was almost no pause for reflection. Stories poured from her, yesterday’s incidents becoming today’s sentences. And when the brightness blazed from her face she could look fabulously attractive, or nuts, or both.

As for the famous Ms. Lakshmi:

She was capable of saying things of such majestic narcissism that he didn’t know whether to bury his head in his hands or applaud. When the Indian movie star Aishwarya Rai was named the most beautiful Indian woman in the world in some glossy magazine or other, for example, Padma announced, in a room full of people, that she had “serious issues with that.”

The narcissistic outbursts—from Rushdie, rather than Lakshmi—would be forgivable if it weren’t for the most execrable aspect of the book. I can’t ever remember reading an author celebrate his own good reviews; Rushdie does so numerous times. On Shame: “This novel, too, had a wonderful reception everywhere, or almost everywhere.” Discussing The Moor’s Last Sigh, he notes that his agent was “almost moved to tears” because the book was so brilliant; even more embarrassing:

His favorite comments about The Moor’s Last Sigh were those from Indian friends who got in touch after reading the now-unbanned book to ask how he’d managed to write it without visiting India. “You sneaked in, didn’t you?” they suggested. “You came quietly and soaked stuff up. Otherwise how would you have known all those things?”

(Note, too, the implicit compliment to realism.) Rushdie’s unrelenting need to highlight his own talents hints at some deep insecurity. After Fury was reviewed harshly, he claims that the experience released him from obsessing about the critics. The evidence here suggests otherwise.

I can’t ever remember reading an author celebrate his own good reviews; Rushdie does so numerous times.

In the book’s final section, Rushdie squares up to ask himself who won the battle over The Satanic Verses, and ruefully concedes that the outgrowth of the ayatollah’s intimidation had a deterrent effect on publishers, and was copied by fanatics of other faiths. This might be too harsh a judgment, in large part because Rushdie’s stand for free expression has remained an example of courage to writers around the world. But if the battle between Rushdie and the ayatollah ended in something close to a draw for literature in general, the same can’t be said of its impact on Rushdie’s own work in particular.

Early in Shame, which is an account of Pakistan’s disastrous governance, the narrator has some fun at the expense of the actual leaders of the country, rather than their lightly fictionalized counterparts, and adds:

By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature, it would have done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not only about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing! Realism can break a writer’s heart.

This was Rushdie—strikingly prescient—at his lightest and most withering, gleefully and acutely mocking Pakistan’s ruling class. The narrator continued: “Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that’s all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously.” Whether or not Rushdie now considers himself a realist, it is hard to take anything he says too seriously.